The situation of human rights defenders at risk is one of CAHR's core areas of research. We focus on: the rights of defenders; the risks they face; their security management practices; their wellbeing; and the evolving international protection regime for their security and rights.
CAHR has supported human rights defenders (HRDs) around the world for over a decade. In 2016 we launched the Human Rights Defender Hub, bringing together our work as a leading provider of temporary relocation, knowledge exchange and research in relation to HRDs.
Through the Hub, CAHR has an ongoing research collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst. You can read more about our work with the mandate here. Our Working Papers Series publishes recent research on human rights defenders, and we regularly convene workshops and seminars on issues related to human rights defenders.
Wellbeing and Temporary International Relocation Initiatives for human rights defenders
The wellbeing of people promoting and protecting human rights is a critical but often neglected issue in the human rights movement. Cultures of human rights practice tend to value deep commitment and sacrifice, prompting feelings of guilt in relation to 'self-care'. People involved in human rights work often find it difficult to talk about their own mental and emotional wellbeing; the very language used in relation to this topic can produced resistance. People involved in human rights work can have very different ways of approaching wellbeing. It is important that we do not presume that certain methods work for everyone and to recognise that experiences of wellbeing are also gendered.
Aims of the Project
The aim of this project is deepen understanding about (a) the norms, beliefs, and practices that hinder as well as support human rights defenders at risk in strengthening their mental and emotional wellbeing, both individually and collectively; (b) how supporters of human rights defenders can assist those at risk in strengthening their mental and emotional wellbeing; (c) which creative and reflective practices strengthen the mental and emotional wellbeing of defenders at risk, and why.
This project is a collaboration between the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York (CAHR), Justice and Peace Netherlands, the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), The Martin Roth Initiative, and The New School in New York.
CAHR staff are working on two international research projects related to human rights defenders at risk:
The project Navigating Risk, Managing Security, and Receiving Support, focuses on the experiences of human rights defenders in Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Egypt, and Indonesia. It explores topics such as the types of risks defenders face and why; factors that make them feel secure and insecure; their security management practices; norms about wellbeing; and perceptions of 'human rights' and 'human rights defenders' in these five countries.
The project Civil Society Networks of Protection, focuses on how formal and informal civil society networks provide protection support to human rights defenders at risk in the East and Horn of Africa. Conducted in partnership with DefendDefenders, the project examines the issues that civil society networks of protection face, and the ways they respond to the challenges involved in supporting defenders at risk.
For more information, go to the research project website.
The Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR), the Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute (HRSJ) at London Metropolitan University, and Amnesty International have collaborated on research to inform practice on the protection of human rights defenders. This has led to two Special Issues:
As a human rights defender myself, I welcome this JHRP Special Issue on the protection of defenders. I believe it ably echoes some of the challenges that triggered the establishment of my mandate in 2010 and are still relevant four years later in many parts of the world: namely the shrinking space for civil society to freely express its views and participate in public life. In this regard, the realization of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association is essential for ensuring a safe and conducive environment for human rights defenders in the pursuance of their legitimate and important activities.
Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly
PI in the projects below: Paul Gready
This research is part of an exciting partnership between the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) and ActionAid, a leading development INGO, focusing on rights-based development alternatives. Global poverty levels remain unacceptably high despite decades of aid. Recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) open space for alternatives to emerge to the mix of neoliberalism and charity that often characterises development policy. There are many examples of communities doing development in a way that puts more emphasis on locally-informed rights cultures and/or hybrid approaches combining local and global elements. Such alternatives can and should inform the implementation of the SDGs. The documentation and promotion of such alternatives is the aim of this project. The research will take a participatory approach to documenting examples of alternatives and testing whether creative methods, such as storytelling and narrative, can support communities to articulate development alternatives.
Funding for this research has been secured from the following sources:
This project seeks to develop a researcher-activist-practitioner network to explore the ways in which art and creative activism can contribute to efforts to understand and enact development alternatives. Development alternatives is understood to mean the diversity of practice and thinking that offers an alternative to mainstream development approaches (eg neo-liberal, service delivery, aid-centred, hierarchical, entrepreneurial), in particular, diverse voices and approaches from the Global South rarely heard in development debates and practice.
In this context, the aims and objectives of this research are innovative in five main ways:
An early finding of the development alternatives research is that the imaginative space to think about alternatives is affected by political and civic space – if the latter is under attack, the former suffers too. This project seeks to identify concrete ways of pushing back against shrinking political and civic space. The crack-down on civil society is a global phenomenon, which has dramatically affected the work of development and environmental activists in many parts of the world. Activist and artists in both Bangladesh and Uganda identified it as a pressing priority. Pushing back involves a shift from reactive responses (such as protection facilities for activists), to a proactive identification of solutions and alternatives.
This impact project will collect examples from 9 case study countries of best practice and innovation from activists, organisations and social movements that are pushing back to promote and protect human rights in contexts of shrinking civic space with/or through the support of ActionAid. The case study countries are Bangladesh, Guatemala, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Challenges to citizenship can be located at the intersection of current political and economic crises. Politically, while there have been 'structural' advances in formerly autocratic states in the Global South in the last 25 years (elections, rights under law, discourses of democratic citizenship), of late the idea of democratic citizenship and inclusion has come under increasing threat. New forms of exclusion have emerged around national boundaries and belonging through a revival of racial and ethnic forms of nationalism, mass migration, and more. A disenchantment with formal politics and political parties has led to a rise of populist parties that champion exclusionary visions of citizenship and belonging. Enduring neo-liberal economic policies (decades of structural adjustment) and related policies of privatisation, decentralisation and public-private partnership have created more complex and often weakened forms of governance that complicate and fragment relations of political authority and accountability.
The intersection of these political and economic trends has generated new forms of exclusion, rising inequality, and growing informality - 'grey spaces' that have a complex relationship to state control and regulation, and which can weaken state sovereignty and formal democracy, but also be the source of economic and political innovation that transforms state policy 'from below'. These developments create challenges, as well as possibly opportunities, for citizenship futures.
This project seeks to better understand the relationships between citizenship, rights and informality. The following three themes have been prioritised: Subaltern informality, public authorities and citizenship; Political subjectivities, hope and story-telling at the margins; and Elite informality and inequality.
Principal investigator: Dr Ioana Cismas
The three-years project has been awarded a large grant by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) and will be implemented by a team of seven researchers led by Dr Ioana Cismas (CAHR and York Law School - PI) and Mr Ezequiel Heffes (Geneva Call - CoI) in close partnership with key humanitarian organisations.
Novel approach to address challenges to humanitarian norms
Humanitarian norms, anchored in international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) aim to 'humanise' war by requiring parties to armed conflict to protect civilians from attacks, detainees from abuse, and to facilitate humanitarian assistance. Yet, across the globe and all too often, civilians are killed, detainees are ill-treated, and hospitals and aid convoys are bombed. This reality results from the manifold systemic and structural challenges to the effectiveness of IHL and IHRL in times of war. It also portrays the pressing need to develop new approaches to generate greater compliance with humanitarian norms. This project proposes such a novel approach. It focuses on the role that religious leaders (can) play in influencing state and non-state armed actors to internalise humanitarian norms with the ultimate aim of enhancing the protection of members of communities affected by armed conflict.
Photo Credit: Geneva Call
What role for religious leaders?
The project is premised on the observation that religious leaders of various faiths have over the past decades put forward interpretations of religion that further the respect of humanitarian norms or, on the contrary, that come in direct conflict with them. Drawing on the theoretical framework developed by Cismas in Religious Actors and International Law, the research recognises that religious leaders are relying on a special type of legitimacy anchored in tradition or charisma, which shapes them as particularly influential societal actors in many conflict situations. By mapping their role in armed conflicts in Colombia, Libya, Mali, and Myanmar, the project will enhance the understanding of what types of messages religious leaders put forward and how these relate to humanitarian norms.
The research will seek to understand the influence of religious interpretations on the parties to the conflict through interviews with religious leaders, selected current and former members of armed actors, and individuals belonging to affected communities in the four case study countries. By crafting and piloting guidelines for humanitarian organisations, the project will enable practitioners to engage with religious leaders on the ground with the aim to explore the most effective ways in which religious leaders can support humanitarian norms and influence parties to a conflict to comply with these norms. The perspectives of religious leaders on the role they can play to 'humanise' war, and those of members of affected communities, will be portrayed to wider audiences through digital stories (short recordings with audio, video, photographic and textual material).
Over the past 20 years, there has been a proliferation of 'transitional justice' mechanisms (primarily criminal tribunals and truth commissions) to provide accountability and redress after state violence and civil war. The Centre has one research project on transitional justice, led by Paul Gready.
Principal Investigator: Paul Gready
Transitional justice has been critiqued for treating the symptoms rather than the causes of conflict. CAHR has helped spearhead an international research network on 'transformative justice' which examines how to transform the structural inequalities that are among the causes and consequences of violence and conflict. More information about the network is available here.
This research project was initially funded by the Worldwide Universities Network and the White Rose Universities. The project included 3 White Rose ESRC PhD studentships on transformative justice at CAHR, University of Leeds, and University of Sheffield.
A three-year research project on Transformative Justice in Tunisia and Egypt (PDF , 80kb) began in January 2014. It was led by CAHR staff members Paul Gready (Principal Investigator) and Simon Robins (Senior Researcher). In collaboration with the American University in Cairo and a number of other local partners in Egypt and Tunisia interviews were conducted with diverse sectors of society and in different parts of each county on agendas and strategies for transformative change. In Egypt the focus was on the potential for transformation without transition, while in Tunisia the research explored whether transition and transitional justice can provide a platform for transformation.
An ESRC IAA grant funded collaboration with the Women's Commission of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC). Tunisia is attempting to address a legacy of rights violations committed under the previous regime, including sexual and gender-based violence against women in detention. CAHR worked with the Women's Commission to research the violations experienced by former detainees and their current needs. This project sought to conduct research to: 1) Go beyond violations and needs to secure insights into locally-relevant reparations, and particularly transformative reparations. 2) To work with the Women's Commission to provide support in drafting its section of the TDC's final report, and associated recommendations. 3) To engage civil society actors, donors and relevant government agencies to build support for the recommendations and their implementation.
The two-year research project on participatory transitional justice process in Tunisia built research capacity in Tunisia that enabled Tunisians from a wide range of backgrounds to articulate their aspirations for the transition to the authorities and increase their participation in transitional justice processes. The project built and trained a research unit within a Tunisian NGO, Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM), using the expertise of CAHR and Impunity Watch. It will additionally train peer researchers from among communities most affected by historical violations, so that they can both contribute to knowledge production around the transition and support the participation of their communities in the process.
The launch of the Transitional Justice Barometer project in Tunisia in January 2015 was noted in local media: Tunisie: Naissance d'un baromètre de la Justice transitionelle.
Transitional Justice Barometer research reports:
The asylum theme of the Centre’s research seeks to explore what we describe as the Frontier of Asylum: What are the limits of refugee protection and the international refugee regime in practice? Focusing predominantly on protection in jurisdictions on the frontiers of the international refugee regime these projects explore the ways in which civil society actors and refugees use legal frameworks and arguments to protect individuals fleeing human rights violations. We explore the frontiers of asylum both in the places of our research, the subjects and actors on which we focus, and the protection tactics. Our work is in contexts where it is not easy in law or practice to differentiate refugee flows from other migratory movements, including economic migration, environmental displacement, and human trafficking.
The Centre also focuses on the phenomena of international migration, examining how the governance of migration shapes the rights of people on the move. Our research examines the impacts of laws, policies and practices on groups such as labour migrants (including migrant domestic workers), foreign spouses, stateless persons, trafficked persons. We examine issues such as immigration detention, the right to health, economic precarity, labour rights, smuggling, trafficking, and xenophobia, focusing on the behaviours and interests of states, intergovernmental bodies, and civil society actors.
This project is funded by the Norweigan Research Council (2019 - 2023) and examines refugee protection in the Middle East. The project is led by Maja Janmyr at University of Oslo with co-Investigators Martin Jones (York), Dallal Stevens (Warwick) and Ben Thomas White (Glasgow). The York-led third pillar of the project will examine the practice of refugee legal aid and the impact of the rule of law (or lack thereof) on legal advocacy in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere in the MENA region.
In 2015, local Acehnese fisherman gained worldwide attention by rescuing thousands of Rohingya stranded in the Straights of Malacca. The Verandah of Protection project funded by the British Academy (2019 - 2021) explores the experiences of the fishermen (and other local actors) and the Rohingya in light of their legal consciousness and personal and collective experiences of violence and displacement.
The provision of refuge to thousands of Rohingya in Aceh, the northern-most province of Indonesia, over the last decade by a wide range of predominantly local actors (including local fisherman, civil society, and local government), often in opposition to the wishes of national authorities, stands as an exception in Southeast Asia where the reception of refugees is normally marked by resistance, hostile rhetoric, and even violence (Nah, 2019). The project seeks to understand the significance of the relatively short history of such protection as both determined by and constitutive of longer histories of identity, violence and protection – of the Acehnese, Rohingya, and in Southeast Asia more generally.
Moving beyond discretionary frameworks of ‘hospitality’ (McNevin and Missbach, 2018), the project will document the 'dissonant histories' (Tunbridge and Ashworth, 1996; Salim, 2008) in Aceh that informed legal contestation involving local legal actors, norms and systems. Bringing a relatively rare example of the welcoming of refugees into discussions of protection in Southeast Asia, combined with the rescaling of analysis to the local level and the retemporalising of its significance within broader histories, has the potential to strengthen protection to those displaced from violence. The project also seeks to explore the impact of affirming dissonant histories in collective memorialisation and to examine linkages between the collective recuperation of these histories, sustainable peace, and the prevention of violence.
When armed conflict, riots, natural disaster, or targeted mistreatment force people from their homes, the last thing on anyone’s mind is calling a lawyer. However, lawyers (and legal systems) provide vital, though understudied, support to displaced persons in rebuilding their lives. Reconnecting displaced persons with their entitlements and rights is crucial for them to construct independent, dignified lives in their new location. The Access to Justice in Diplacement (A2JD) project funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) (2019 - 2020) seeks to build an international coalition of practitioners and academics to launch an international, participatory collaboration to develop better legal interventions in jurisdictions, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, where such interventions have been largely overlooked.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the A2JD project has refocused its work to support its collaborators in making changes to their delivery of legal services and conduct of legal advocacy. Although it is often said that the virus does not discriminate, the existing discrimination faced by world's 70 million displaced persons have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The first output of this adjustment is a practice note on the delivery of legal services by telephone, often forced upon legal aid providers through restrictions on movement and forced closures of offices imposed in response to the pandemic. The project will also be sending a regular newsletter of developments and identified resources to its collaborators to share good practices and support the collective identification of new opportunities for legal advocacy during the pandemic.
The project is a collaboration between Martin Jones and Alice Nah of the Centre and Asylum Access and a large number of other providers of legal aid to displaced persons in the Global South. The project is supported by three research assistants drawn from York Law School's undergraduate and postgraduate students, including the LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice (Anya Campbell, Elinor Coombs, and Prisca Munzemba).
Is someone a refugee if he or she has fled to a state that hasn't signed the Refugee Convention or recognised refugees in its domestic law? If this person isn't a refugee, does he or she have any rights? What protection is owed to him or her by the new state of residence? How can the law, lawyers and legal institutions respond to the vulnerability, needs and capacities of such individuals?
From Lebanon through to Malaysia, a majority of the world's refugees live in a broad, contiguous swath of states that have not signed up to the core international agreements concerning how refugees should be protected. In such locations, refugees are often treated as "outside of the law" and subject to discrimination, abuse and other serious human rights violations. The answers to the opening questions for these people are too often in the negative and the result can be catastrophic for refugees. Refugees in these locations suffer a range of mistreatment as result of being seen as outside of the law, including irregular status, discriminatory treatment from landlords and employers, sexual harassment and assault with impunity (including at the hands of state officials), arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention (often in conditions so severe as to put their life at risk), and corporal punishments such as canning. This project systematically explored some recent successes by local providers of legal aid to refugees in such situations and to determine whether these successes can form the basis for a new approach to refugee protection.
Working with four leading providers of legal aid to refugees in Egypt, India, Malaysia and Hong Kong, the Law of Asylum project, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (2016 - 2019) evaluated the experiences of refugees, lawyers and legal aid organisations in using innovative legal arguments and frameworks to protect refugees. The project supported the mapping of the relevant local legal frameworks through doctrinal legal analysis, interviews and workshops with legal experts, and discussion with refugee community leaders. The project also provided funding to local lawyers to pursue legal advocacy for the rights of refugees drawing on a range of innovative sources of law, including other international treaties, local constitutional law, various local legislative provisions, local jurisprudence, and common-law principles. It will collected detailed stories of these legal encounters and produced a series of digital stories to be used in advocacy.
The phenomenon of shrinking civic space has severely impacted advocacy with, by and about “people on the move” (a deliberately broad category of people. Those who act in solidarity with people on the move and who seek to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of their human rights face a constellation of challenges, arising from both some of the disturbing features of global migration policy and the general trend towards the closing of civic space to human rights defenders. Importantly, many human rights defenders become people on the move in response to the risks they face arising from their human rights advocacy; they move in order to avoid threats and violence by the perpetrators of human rights violations that they oppose. In entering exile, they often continue with great difficulty their defence of human rights, and may turn their attention to the defence of their own rights in exile and the rights of other people on the move. Meanwhile, their allies and supporters face challenges of their own, arising out of the geographic location of people on the move, and the increasing criminalization and stigmatization of both people on the move and their defenders. The rise of non-State actors in migration processes also creates additional risks for defenders of people on the move.
In November 2017, we hosted a workshop in York of human rights defenders and experts with the UN Special Rapporteur to discuss the situation of human rights defenders of people on the move. In 2017 and 2018, we supported the research and drafting of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defender’s report to the UN Human Rights Council on the situation of defenders of people on the move (A/HRC/37/51).
Past research projects have included:
Principal Investigator: Paul Gready
In April 2017, York became the UK's first Human Rights City. A local network called York: Human Rights City (YHRC), and CAHR, developed a new participatory approach to measuring human rights at a local level. Working with students at CAHR, our first step was to identify key priority rights for York by surveying those living and working in the city. Five clear priorities emerged: Non-Discrimination and Equality; Education; Health and Social Care; An Adequate Standard of Living; and Housing. For each priority right we then consulted with local organisations, users of services and service providers to select around two indicators per right eg hate crime for non-discrimination and equality. Annual reports will be published to record progress in York against these rights and indicators, and the report is designed to stimulate debate and action on human rights in the city - for example, it informs the agenda of a newly established Human Rights and Equalities Board. This approach represents a novel way of measuring human rights progress at a local level, which we continue to share with other cities interested in a Human Rights City status.
Human Rights Indicator Reports:
Principal Investigator: Ioana Cismas
Noma (cancrum oris) is a disease which affects young malnourished children living in extreme poverty conditions. This gangrenous disease starts in the mouth and spreads rapidly destroying the muscles and the bones of the face. If diagnosed at the earliest stages, noma can be easily treated with rehydration, nutritional intervention, antibiotics and mouth rinses. Yearly, 140,000 children in Africa, Asia and Latin America are affected by noma. The disease has a mortality rate of 90%.
While it affects the most vulnerable in society, shares the main characteristics with other neglected tropical diseases, and has a higher burden of years lost due to premature mortality and disability, noma is currently not part of the World Health Organization (WHO) list of neglected tropical diseases.
Dr Ioana Cismas’ research seeks to contribute to the better prevention and treatment of noma and to addressing human rights violations associated with the disease through two strands of impact:
1) The acknowledgment of noma as a consequence and cause of socio-economic rights violations and substantive inequality
As legal advisor to a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Advisory Committee, Dr Cismas has drafted a series of studies on noma. In 2012, the Advisory Committee adopted the Study on severe malnutrition and childhood diseases with children affected by noma as an example and the thereto annexed soft law instrument, Human Rights Principles and Guidelines to improve the protection of children at at risk or affected by malnutrition, specifically at risk of or affected by noma. In its resolution of March 2012, the UNHRC, the main intergovernmental body within the United Nations system responsible for human rights promotion and protection, acknowledged the Study and ‘encourage[d] member states to implement’ the Human Rights Principles and Guidelines. Other human rights mechanisms have acted upon the recommendations entailed in those documents.
2) The inclusion of noma on the WHO list of Neglected Tropical Diseases
Dr Cismas’ work since 2012 contributes to the implementation of one the main recommendations entailed in Advisory Committee’s study: the inclusion of noma on the WHO list of neglected tropical disease. The formal recognition is expected to result - as was the case with other WHO neglected diseases - in greater institutional support at international level, increased funding from donors, and stronger governmental interest to prevent and treat the disease and to address associated human rights violations and discrimination.
Dr Cismas has contributed to coalition-building and research in support of the formal recognition of noma as a neglected disease. She is a member of the Task Force on Noma which includes representatives of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and other non-governmental organizations specialising in the treatment of noma. She co-chairs the Workshop on Noma of the Geneva Health Forum 2018 which seeks to understand the difficulties encountered in gathering data on noma and proposes strategies and tools to address them.
Some of Dr Cismas’ activities are supported by an IAA ESRC responsive mode funding.